“I was raised on country music and I love country music,” Allen tells Billboard. “So I want to keep expanding because I want people to feel the love and joy that I feel from being a part of country music. It’s a way for country to remain country, but you can still include other people. That's how you grow the country world. That's how you make sure country stands the test of time. You keep it inclusive, you keep it growing. Things die when they don't grow.”
The album finds its emotional center in the ballad “Pray,” featuring Monica and Little Big Town. Allen says he heard the song about six months ago and recorded it the next week.
“This song is powerful, because to me, it wasn’t a religious song. I'm not really a religious guy. I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious. When I heard it, it's just pushing the idea that at some point in everyone's life, we all go through something that causes you to stop and realize that you need a higher power to help you get through the situation you're in.”
Allen reached out to Monica through a mutual friend. The “Angel of Mine” hitmaker just happened to be in Nashville working on a project with Brandi Carlile when she heard Little Big Town recording in a different studio room down the hall.
“She heard them singing and wanted to know who it was, and Brandi was like, ‘Oh, that’s Little Big Town.’ So they started talking and the song came up. They loved it and said they would sing on it.”
He wrote “Forever” with Babyface and top Nashville hitmaker Ashley Gorley and later asked Babyface to turn the song into a duet. “Boy Gets a Truck” was originally included on Urban’s Ripcord album, while Allen also recorded his own version for 2018's Mercury Lane.
“I texted Keith, like, ‘Dude, we should do this song together,’ and he was down. I'm definitely honored and humbled that these artists want to be a part of something I'm creating. Maybe it's just a testament that they either respect me as an artist, even like my music, or both. I'm just glad they want to do it. That gives me confidence to continue what I do.”
While artists were forced off the road during the pandemic, Allen saw an opportunity. “I definitely think the world kind of being at a pause was an advantage on the creative side. I was like, ‘Man, look, they’re sitting at home doing nothing and they’re probably looking for something to do. This is probably the time I can get them to say yes.’ I kind of hit them at a vulnerable place and took advantage of the situation.”
Just as he’s adamant about exploring various collaborations on his new album, Allen also seeks out different outlets for his myriad ambitions. In July, he’ll release the children’s book My Voice Is a Trumpet. Four months ago, he finished another album, Tulip Drive.
“Mercury Lane was a lot of life lessons I learned when I was younger. Tulip Drive is more my high school and college years, things I went through. If I get to a point where an album is finished and I don’t have anything to say, I’ll take a break from putting out music. I’ll dive into movies, TV shows and writing books. I never want to release an album to just say I have an album. I'd rather not put one out.”
Allen is among a group of artists -- such as Kane Brown and Luke Combs -- who are parlaying creative success into business opportunities. Allen launched Bettie James Music Publishing in partnership with Sony Music Publishing Nashville and signed Tate Howell, his bass player and a co-writer on “Why Things Happen” from the Bettie James EP.
“It gives writers a chance to be heard, and it’s also a business thing,” Allen says of the publishing company. “If a song has a possibility of being a single, why would I pass on that business opportunity and hand this writer over to someone else when I could invest, put my money where my mouth is, and do a partnership? It helps me create a legacy to leave to my kids and creates jobs for other people. We're all where we are because someone gave us an opportunity.”
Allen himself was offered two recent high-profile television opportunities. The first, performing for Garth Brooks’ segment during CBS' Kennedy Center Honors allowed Allen to salute an artist he’s admired for years. With the second, appearing on ABC’s Juneteenth: Together We Triumph special, Allen hopes he can serve as a similar point of light for other aspiring country artists of color -- the same goal he ultimately has for all his projects.
“It means a lot that they asked me to be part of the ABC special, that they value who I am as an artist. It’s a huge honor to be part of it. Hopefully I can be some sort of inspiration to someone watching, some Black kid that wants to do country music or any person of color who wants to be in country music, just like Charley Pride was to me and to so many others, because I feel like representation is so important.”
Of the Kennedy Center Honors, he adds, “I ain't going to lie, I was nervous as hell. I'm sitting here singing Garth Brooks to Garth Brooks, one of the greatest entertainers of all time. He played such a big part in my career. [Like Brooks,] I always take time to thank people that support my music, and make time to take pictures with people. These people spend their hard-earned money to come see me perform. The least I could do is take a picture, you know? I have so much admiration towards Garth for the career he's built, but also the person he's been during the career.”
According to Allen, the Kennedy Center Honors may very well have sparked another superstar collaboration. “We texted after the show. I would love to collaborate with Garth -- write with him, play some shows with him. I'm actually going to ask him about it really soon.”